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Do These So-Called Superfoods Live Up to the Hype?

by
author image Maggie Moon, MS, RDN
Maggie Moon, MS, RDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Los Angeles, and author of "The MIND Diet" (Ulysses Press, 2016). She holds a Master of Science degree in Nutrition and Education from Columbia University. Connect with her at maggiemoon.com.

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Do These So-Called Superfoods Live Up to the Hype?
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Modern living has its perks, but the sedentary all-you-can-eat lifestyle (and its health consequences) isn’t one of them. It’s no wonder we’re attracted to healing foods from thoroughly unmodern plants and even ancient traditions. From bulletproof coffee to bone broth, many of today’s hottest cure-alls come with a rich history, while others -- such as microgreens and aloe vera juice -- are essentially novel takes on familiar plants. What they all have in common: your attention. Indeed, it’s exciting to discover a food’s healing potential, but don’t mistake fervor for credibility. To help you look before you leap, nutrition experts from across the country weigh in on 12 of today’s trendiest “health” foods.

1. Bulletproof Coffee
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1 BULLETPROOF COFFEE

Also known as butter coffee, bulletproof coffee combines black coffee with one to two tablespoons each of unsalted butter from grass-fed cows and medium chain triglyceride (MCT) oil. While it may be new to you, “it’s enjoyed around the world and is a staple for Tibetans, where traditional butter tea (similar in concept to butter coffee) is an essential source of energy, helping them survive the harsh Himalayan climate where very little food grows,” shares Marisa Moore, RDN, owner of Marisa Moore Nutrition. Proponents claim it provides lasting energy, a brain boost and weight-loss benefits. Moore says, “I’m not aware of any research to support the purported benefits, but sipping a little butter-spiked coffee from time to time is not a crime.” Consider this: A mug can run about 400 calories without contributing protein, fiber or a significant range of vitamins and minerals the way a solid meal should. The final word from Moore: “Replacing a whole and nutritious breakfast with this high-fat, low-nutrient beverage can make it difficult to meet your daily nutrition needs. It’s not worth the hype.”

Related: Is “Coffee Hacking” a Bad Idea?

2. Maple Water
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2 MAPLE WATER

Before it’s maple syrup, it’s maple sap -- a thin, less-sweet liquid tapped from maple trees. Marketed as maple water, some are calling this bottled maple sap the new coconut water. In addition to hydrating the body, it’s supposed to strengthen bones, fight inflammation, control blood sugar and fix thyroid issues. “There is no research available on maple water specifically,” says Sharon Palmer, RDN, author of “Plant-Powered for Life.” She notes, however, that there is emerging research on phytochemicals and blood sugar for the syrup form. Nutritionally, maple water is an excellent source of manganese, which is nice, except Americans do just fine in the manganese department. If you like the taste, it shouldn’t be too hard to balance out its 15 calories and three grams of sugar per serving, but you may want to hold off on crowning it the next miracle elixir. The final word from Palmer: “You are probably just as fine drinking water.”

Related: Sign Up to Receive the FREE LIVESTRONG.COM Weekly Health and Fitness Newsletter

3. Bone Broth
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3 BONE BROTH

Essentially soup stock made with a higher ratio of bones to meat, bone broth is having a moment. It counts Kobe Bryant as a fan, and it sustains enough interest to support a broth-only takeout window in New York City. The idea is to unlock nutrients like collagen, anti-inflammatory fats, amino acids and minerals from animal bones in order to help a range of ailments, including achy joints, leaky gut, dull skin and the common cold. “I recommend bone broth for the digestive healing properties of collagen,” says Robin Foroutan, M.S., RD, integrative dietitian and holistic health counselor. However, the research on both risks and benefits is limited and includes a positive study on chicken soup for congestion and an alarming one on organic chicken broth that found that it’s not just nutrients that are getting pulled from the bones. Lead levels in the chicken broth were elevated (up to 9.5 micrograms per liter) compared with the water it was made in (0.89 micrograms per liter), but it was still under EPA limits for drinking water (15 micrograms per liter). As long as you’re not having it morning, noon and night, and the sodium content is not sky-high, bone broth can add some positive nutrients to the diet and is especially good for you if it’s replacing less nutritious foods. The final word: If you’re curious about it, try a warming cup of what is basically soup, but don’t go replacing all your fluids with broth just yet.

Related: 7 Surprising Benefits of Fermented Foods

4. Oil Pulling
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4 OIL PULLING

Oil pulling refers to a traditional Indian folk remedy for dental health that involves swishing with oil to be rid of bad breath and tooth decay. “Some claim that it pulls toxins out so that when you spit out the oil, it is all brown and black with gunk,” says Ginger Hultin, registered dietitian at the Block Center for Integrative Cancer Treatment. “Biochemically speaking, if you look at how the body processes toxins, this is not the way,” explains Hultin. What some small studies do suggest is that oil pulling with sesame oil for about 10 to 15 minutes may kill just as much of the bacteria that cause bad breath and gingivitis as a chemical mouthwash (chlorhexidine). The final word: It may be a cost-effective mouthwash if you’re willing to commit the time needed, but don’t neglect regular brushing and flossing too.

Related: 10 Surprising Flat-Belly Foods

5. Activated Charcoal
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5 ACTIVATED CHARCOAL

Please don’t go huffing your barbecue briquettes -- activated charcoal is a little different: It’s nontoxic and has been treated to create more surface area with a complex internal pore structure. Clinicians know that a short-term regimen of activated charcoal can be helpful for immediate poisoning treatment. Charcoal binds unabsorbed drugs in the gut and helps clear them from the body faster. In a hospital setting, it often comes in capsule form, but trend watchers are seeing it show up on menus at juice and cocktail bars, mostly as a detoxifying potion, but some even mix tonic with cure. However, it doesn’t bind well to alcohol (so much for the hangover cure), and alcohol actually prevents it from working well. Additional cautions: activated charcoal makes it harder for the body to absorb micronutrients, and Ginger Hultin, M.S., RD warns, “Because of its absorptive properties, it can cause constipation in some.” The final word: Let activated charcoal do its work in your Brita pitcher, not your gut. As for detoxing after a night out, your liver (and plenty of water from said Brita pitcher) has that covered.

Related: Sign Up to Receive the FREE LIVESTRONG.COM Weekly Health and Fitness Newsletter

6. Bee Pollen
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6 BEE POLLEN

A mixture of flower pollen, nectar and bee saliva that collects on the legs and bodies of worker bees, bee pollen varies as much as the plants the bees visit. Bee pollen is not honey, venom nor royal jelly: It is made of complex sugars, simple sugars, fats, protein, vitamin C and carotenoids. The buzz is about the enzymes in the pollen, a supposed solution to a long list of concerns: PMS, allergies, eczema, bruising, hangovers, premature aging, constipation, diarrhea, poor appetite and much more. The buzz kill is that there is no reliable evidence for any of the benefits. In addition, any enzymes are likely broken down in the stomach and digested in the gut before they could act as medicines. “Bee pollen is used as an energy tonic in Chinese medicine,” says Robin Foroutan, M.S., RD, who uses it for clients with seasonal allergies. She notes that there’s emerging research in mice for cancer and immunity benefits and that “there may be components we don’t yet fully understand within bee pollen that make it work.” She warns that people with pollen allergies could have severe reactions to it. The final word: People without the allergy concern seem to tolerate bee pollen fine, so you’re pretty safe trying it out if you’d like to, there’s just not a lot of science to back up the health claims.

Related: 10 Surprising Flat-Belly Foods

7. Coconut Oil
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7 COCONUT OIL

Coconut oil is the fat derived from coconut flesh, but, unlike most vegetable oils, it is solid at room temperature due to its high saturated fat content. The majority of the fats are medium chain triglycerides (MCT), which are readily used as fuel and have long been used in a clinical setting for fat malabsorption issues. As a food (versus as a moisturizer), people use it for weight loss, heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, fatigue, immunity boosting and more. However, there isn’t enough reliable evidence to recommend coconut oil for any of these conditions. The research on cholesterol is conflicting, with some studies showing cholesterol going up and others showing it going down. The obesity studies suggest it could slim the waistline, but without weight changes. “I regularly recommend this as part of a balanced diet -- for sauteing vegetables, replacing butter or other oils in baked goods and sometimes even adding to smoothies,” says Mary Purdy, RDN and adjunct faculty at Bastyr University. She adds, “It is wonderfully sweet and flavorful and can temper the bitter taste of some greens.” The final word: Coconut oil can be therapeutic under specific conditions, but the strongest case for using it is if you enjoy the taste.

Related: The Pros and Cons of 16 Different Cooking Fats

8. Microgreens
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8 MICROGREENS

Not to be confused with sprouts (which are just-germinated seeds), microgreens are tiny young versions of edible greens and herbs. “They have established roots and are harvested at the opening of the first leaves, about 10 to 21 days after the seeds are sown,” says Sharon Palmer, RDN. They gained culinary attention in the 1990s for their delicate appearance, vivid colors, surprising flavor and interesting textures. In 2012, nutrition researchers studied levels of vitamins A, C, E and K and carotenoids in 25 microgreens available in stores. Naturally, different microgreens had varying levels of nutrients, but all were more nutrient-dense than mature leaves. The top microgreen for vitamin C was red cabbage, for carotenoids it was cilantro, for vitamin K it was garnet amaranth and for vitamin E it was green daikon radish. While they may be packed with nutrients, the typical portion is small, which means the impact on the total diet is probably minor. Still, adding microgreens to a healthy dish can only up the nutrition, not to mention providing culinary flare. The final word: Good things do come in small packages. Palmer says, “These are delicious, nutritious foods you can include in your diet!”

Related: 11 Nutrients Americans Aren’t Getting Enough Of

9. Kombucha
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9 KOMBUCHA

Kombucha is a kind of yeast, though some mistake it for a mushroom. The tea is made by fermenting tea with sugar and a culture of bacteria and yeast. It’s been consumed in China, Japan and Russia for at least the past 100 years as a health tonic, though it has only gained wide popularity in the U.S. in the past decade. It’s used as medicine for a laundry list of ailments, including memory loss, PMS, aging, AIDS, cancer, high blood pressure, immunity, metabolism, constipation, arthritis and hair regrowth. The science does not back up any of these claims. In fact, there are many documented side effects, including stomachaches, vomiting, nausea and headache. As a fermented food, it may stimulate digestion and provide probiotics, says Mary Purdy, RDN. The final word: If you want to try it, a safe choice is a pasteurized product from a brand you trust (but then you’ll miss out on the probiotics). For similar nutrients, get antioxidants from regular tea and probiotics from yogurt, kimchi or other fermented foods. The documented risks outweigh the potential benefits for those who are very young, very old, pregnant or whose immune systems are weakened.

Related: 7 Surprising Benefits of Fermented Foods

10. Aloe Vera Juice
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10 ALOE VERA JUICE

The aloe vera juice you’ll find in stores is most likely made from the clear gel inside an aloe plant, but if it’s made with the whole leaf or aloe latex, watch out for laxative effects and cramping. You may see words like “inner fillet,” which is the skin-soothing clear gel; or “latex,” which is the yellow layer between the clear inner gel and tough outer skin that contains laxative chemicals (aloin, anthraquinones). “Aloe is known to coat and soothe the GI,” says Ginger Hultin, M.S., RD. However, she warns that “too much aloe can cause diarrhea and, because it coats the GI tract, can also interact with some medications or supplements, reducing absorption.” As a food, aloe gel contributes complex and simple sugars, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, tannins and sterols. People use it for weight loss, digestion, immunity boosting, reducing inflammation, detoxing and overall wellness. There is some evidence the latex can help with constipation and preliminary evidence that the gel could help lower high cholesterol. However, the science is not strong enough to definitively support the health claims. The final word: The aloe vera gel-based beverage is probably safe to try if you’re curious about it, but there just isn’t enough evidence that you’ll actually reap the advertised benefits.

Related: Sign Up to Receive the FREE LIVESTRONG.COM Weekly Health and Fitness Newsletter

11. Fermented Foods
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11 FERMENTED FOODS

From kimchi to crème fraiche, every traditional diet on the planet features fermented foods, perhaps because fermentation is one of the oldest ways to keep food from spoiling. Today, they are in the spotlight for keeping the trillions of friendly bacteria (probiotics) in our gut happy and in turn keeping our digestive systems (and perhaps more) running smoothly. “Fermented foods are hot right now and healthful,” says Ginger Hultin, M.S., RD. Here’s how it works: A food is exposed to bacteria or yeast that then feed on its natural sugars, which results in lactic acid or alcohol, which in turn preserves the food. Fermented foods are often easier to digest and support good gut bacteria. Since the gut is home to most of the body’s immune system, it follows that keeping the gut healthy helps keep the whole body healthy. There is some evidence probiotics are effective for constipation, H. pylori ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, respiratory tract infections and ulcerative colitis. The caveat is that not all fermented foods have live probiotics or that the strain within them is linked to research-backed health benefits. In addition, fermented foods can be high in sodium and added sugars. The final word: Enjoying traditional fermented foods in moderation is a culturally relevant way to promote friendly bacteria for digestive health.

Related: 7 Surprising Benefits of Fermented Foods

12. Sprouted Foods
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12 SPROUTED FOODS

When a plant’s seed has the right temperature and water, it will sprout and change the bioavailability of the nutrients inside. “People are way into sprouted seeds, grains and legumes because, when the kernel is disrupted, these foods are more easily digested and the nutrients inside can be better accessed by our bodies,” says Ginger Hultin, M.S., RD. There are studies showing that sprouting increases nutrients such as folate, fiber, antioxidants and a more bioaccessible form of iron. However, there is no good evidence that the enzymes in sprouted foods make it past the acidic environment of the stomach. An additional cautionary note: The warm, humid conditions needed for sprouting is also ideal for harmful bacteria like salmonella and E. coli. Because of the food-safety risks, be sure to buy from brands you trust and to refrigerate sprouted food. The final word: Sprouted foods, when made under good manufacturing practices, are a safe and healthy option for people who have trouble digesting grains, legumes and seeds. They’re also a good option for vegetarians seeking plant-based sources of bioavailable iron.

Related: 10 Surprising Flat-Belly Foods

What Do You Think?
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?

No single food alone can keep you healthy. It’s always been about balance, variety and portions. Have you tried any of these? Did you notice any dramatic changes for better or for worse? Did we convince you to try or avoid any of them? How does this change how you’ll think about the next trendy health food to hit the scene? Let us know in the comments below.

Related: The Pros and Cons of 16 Different Cooking Fats

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